Discussing soldiers of color, dreams, music, and ‘Holding It Down’ with Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd

Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd's 'Holding It Down' opens tonight. (Vaughn Brown)
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“I got back in '03,” Maurice Decaul started matter-of-factly, remembering what it was like to return to New York City after a tour in Iraq.

“I realize now that through '04 it was hard to flip off my high-alert switch, so to speak. Basically, I hadn't done it. I was here, but still very much a Marine in a combat zone."

For Decaul, a Rutgers University M.F.A. candidate in writing, nearly every experience, even the most mundane, felt heightened, dangerous, anxious.

"Like I'd be on a bus or a subway, and instantly go to the very rear or wherever I could see everyone coming on. If someone looked threatening—however I would categorize 'a potential threat' at that time, like maybe they were drunk or were simply bigger than me—in my mind I'd devise a plan to deal with it. In Iraq, you had to size people up quickly and figure out how you'd handle things if the situation turned hostile. That was just the reality on the ground.”

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Decaul was recounting this to me by phone between rehearsals for Harlem Stage's season opener Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project. The ex-Marine-turned-poet is one of the stars of the ambitious performance piece, which runs tonight through Saturday and kicks off the premier uptown arts institution's 30th anniversary season. Commissioned by Harlem Stage executive producer Patricia Cruz, it is the third multimedia collaboration staged by pianist-composer Vijay Iyer and spoken-word artist Mike Ladd.

Perhaps fittingly, as Decaul was relieved of his memories of nine years ago, suddenly a chuckle became audible.

“Obviously, I don't have to do any of that now,” he said, laughing. “I'm no longer that person. Sometimes I worry myself because I don't pay enough attention.”

Of course, the crux of Holding It Down is that a soldier's waking notions from combat also have ramifications on his or her subconscious. The narratives for the new piece, culled from hours of interviews with individuals who, like Decaul and his co-star Lynne Hill, have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, continues Iyer's and Ladd's quest to artistically document the lives of people of color post-9/11.

“Everybody dreams, so I think that gives audiences an easy way in,” said Iyer. Holding It Down furthers the line that connected 2003's In What Language?, about the new fear-based culture of surveillance at airports, to 2007's Still Life With Commentator, which explored the news and media in a time of war, as the idea of a blogosphere took hold.

To talk to Iyer is to relate to someone whose worldview has been shaped by various seemingly disparate threads. The Rochester native pursued a Ph.D. in physics that he summarily put away nearly two decades ago in order to follow a career in jazz in the Bay Area (he ended up with a Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music).

“Back then I began working with activist organizations centered around the issues of communities of color, which led to my work with the poet Amiri Baraka when I came back East,” he said. Iyer found a soulmate in Ladd, a Cambridge, Mass.-bred hip-hopper/instrumentalist/producer whose influences reached back to the jazz-flavored grooves of Charles Stepney, the arranger best known for his work with Ramsey Lewis and the Chess blues label.

It's the reason that a stream of consciousness jam like Ladd's “My Fire” is awash in aqueous textures, keyboards and percussive piano clinkers vie with cello and a soulfully insistent beat.

“I have her in my scope,” Ladd intones at one point, standing in for an anonymous warrior. “And though she's done nothing she will pick up the check for all of the dead that walk my memory and myth.”

For his part, Iyer is still taken aback by some of the revelations.

“We found that for some of these folks, dreams are the worst part of their lives, where they can't put away or process the trauma that they've been through,” he said. “They offer up these surreal juxtapositions or multiple simultaneous realities that I remember one veteran in particular articulating very clearly. He'd been in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and identified them by their colors: Iraq had these oranges and bright yellows, while Afghanistan he remembered as blues and browns. He'd have these dreams of walking through Harlem, but the colors would be pure Afghanistan.”

The project has been through several stages since Iyer and Ladd brought the idea to executive producer Pat Cruz in 2008.

“It's had a fairly long gestation period,” Cruz said. “We've presented it in process at audience workshop evenings over the past few years, and then Mike and Vijay brought director Patricia McGregor in to help focus the narrative.” McGregor, who numbers among her recent successes the staging of playwright Katori Hall's popular Hurt Village at midtown's Signature Theater this past spring, was a particularly astute choice. Not only was the central character in Hurt Village a troubled returning veteran, but McGregor is from a family of men who've served in conflicts going back to WWII.

“I was working on the two productions concurrently,” said McGregor. “The interviews we were doing put me even closer to questions I'd had already with people close to me—how uncomfortable it is for soldiers to share combat experiences with civilians, and that we as a culture may need to engage more than we do.”

According to Cruz, this is only the beginning of Harlem Stage's engagement with the healing process of war.

“In December, we're premiering another collaboration by Mike called Sleep Song, a piece he's constructing from the dreams of other soldiers augmented with Iraqi survivors of the conflict,” she says. “I think it's important that we not forget that there were two sides in these recent conflicts, the occupiers (us) and well as the occupied.”

'Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project' runs tonight through Saturday at Harlem Stage. Tickets are available here.

An earlier version of this article misstated the dates for 'Holding It Down' and misidentified the discipline of Mr. Iyer's Ph.D. These have been corrected.